FCC Moves to End Sports Blackouts

Proposal would end 40-year-old rule

The Federal Communications Commission officially set in motion late Wednesday a proposal to end the 40-year-old rule preventing a cable or satellite operator from carrying a National Football League game blacked out on local TV.

FCC commissioner and former acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn circulated the item just before Tom Wheeler was made chairman early last month. 

Blackouts have never been popular, driving a number of lawmakers and organizations, including the Sports Fan Coalition, to petition the FCC to do away with them. As a result, the NFL last year modified its agreements with local TV stations, allowing individual teams to determine their own blackout threshold—anywhere from 85 percent to 100 percent of tickets sold. 

According to the FCC, when NFL teams in 2011 failed to sell out a stadium, 16 of 256 games were blacked out in four cities: Buffalo, Cincinnati, San Diego and Tampa. But this year, only one NFL game was blacked out.

While pay-TV services like Dish Network have been pushing hard for lifting the rule because it would allow them to run games that are blacked out, broadcasters and the NFL oppose it. 

"We're concerned that the FCC proposal may hasten the migration of sports to pay-TV platforms and will disadvantage the growing number of people who rely on free, over-the-air television as their primary source for sports," said Dennis Wharton, evp of the National Association of Broadcasters.

“We will strongly oppose any change in the rule,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told Politico. “We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts since the policy was implemented 40 years ago. While affecting very few games the past decade, the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds.”

Lawmakers routinely express outrage when a game is blacked out in their districts. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who introduced a bill in November that would make it difficult for leagues to require blackouts, applauded the FCC's move. "The FCC's unanimous vote is a big victory for sports fans," McCain said in a statement.

Once the FCC receives comments, it is likely to vote on the proposal this spring.